Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Damage from Ike could affect coastal ecosystem of Texas for years

Guardian (UK), via McClatchy: It was a violent dose of nature to a coast already hammered by decades of pollution, population growth and habitat loss. As scientists and land managers start to assess the storm's impacts on beaches, dunes and marshes, they are seeing signs of present damage and future worries.

"The impacts are going to be phenomenal," said Jim Sutherlin, superintendent of the Texas parks and wildlife department's 24,250-acre J.D. Murphree Wildlife Management Area, near Port Arthur. "We're going to take the critters that crawl or walk, and for the full stretch of the coastal zone that got the full impact of the coastal flood, they're just eliminated."

Although big storms are a natural part of any coastline's life story, the upper Gulf Coast of Texas was already under stress from many sources. Coastal development and subsidence - a drop in the land's surface level as petroleum and groundwater are pumped out - have degraded large areas of marsh. Excessive organic material in coastal waters creates a "dead zone" of almost no oxygen in the upper Texas gulf.

And today's idea of a normal Texas coast could change dramatically in a future with higher sea levels from global warming. Earlier this month, scientists from three American universities concluded in the journal Science that a global sea level rise of 31.5 inches by the year 2100 should be the assumption. The highest conceivable rise, they estimate, is 6.5 feet.

Even the lower figure would put much of the existing Texas coastline permanently under water and would let a hurricane's strongest force reach farther inland. With coastal development, storms and rising seas all chewing away natural defences such as dunes and wetlands, damage from future hurricanes is likely to get worse.

"I'm sure what we'll see (from Ike) is more evidence of what happens when we don't maintain those natural barriers," said Larry McKinney, executive director of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico studies at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. "A hurricane is kind of a small-scale climate-change model," McKinney said. "We really need to start pulling together a long-term plan for responding to climate change."...

Galveston Island near Bolivar Point, where Hurricane Ike did plenty of damage to communities, infrastructure and waterways. Shot by Tom Atkeson of the US Coast Guard, Wikimedia Commons

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